Monday, 18 January 2016

Times of change: Grief and loss

During this dark time of the year, losing those we admire or love seems somehow harder. We often forget life is a continual series of loss of one kind or another. Just as the year changes with different periods of light and shade, we also move from infant to child, adolescent to adult, fertile to infertile, active to physically challenged, life to death and the passage something else or nothing, depending your own belief system. Each stage brings its own grief which may or may not be noticed or acknowledged.

Shakespeare depicted it in his own inimitable way when he wrote in “As you like it”
All the world's a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages. At first the infant,
Mewling and puking in the nurse's arms.
Then, the whining school-boy with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school. And then the lover,
Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad
Made to his mistress' eyebrow. Then, a soldier,
Full of strange oaths, and bearded like the pard,
Jealous in honour, sudden, and quick in quarrel,
Seeking the bubble reputation
Even in the cannon's mouth. And then, the justice,
In fair round belly, with a good capon lined,
With eyes severe, and beard of formal cut,
Full of wise saws, and modern instances,
And so he plays his part. The sixth age shifts
Into the lean and slippered pantaloon,
With spectacles on nose and pouch on side,
His youthful hose, well saved, a world too wide
For his shrunk shank, and his big manly voice,
Turning again toward childish treble, pipes
And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.

Nancy Kerr recently introduced me to a round which sums up “a good life” eloquently in so few words. She was given it by her mother, Sandra, who attributed it either to Kabir, the Indian mystic or “an old Cherokee saying”.

When you are born you cried and the world rejoiced. Live your life so that when you die the world cries and you rejoice.

Whether the loss be large or small, however it arrives there will be periods of grieving to a greater or lesser extent. There is one certainty; everyone will experience grief in a different way and probably at a different time, often when it is least expected. This is normal.

Many people today expect life to be like Norfolk; flat, when the reality is that life is like Birmingham; filled with hills and valleys but often covered with buildings so sunrise and sunset can be obscured.

Many people fear change and many more feel helpless when those around them are physically or emotionally in pain. There are many simple things which can be done to support those suffering and there are several herbs which can help.

Immediate support
It’s hard to plan for loss. News that something is ending whether it is a life, a job, a relationship or something else can elicit shock. Reactions can vary. Denial, avoidance, anger and pain are common and many people experience numbness where nothing seems real and the world turns in slow motion or catapults you into places where you have no control over events.

Shock puts great strain on the adrenal glands. An immediate response can be to offer Rescue Remedy Flower Essence (4 drops under the tongue every half hour for the first four hours or so). I use rose elixir in the same dosage or one dropperful/1/2 a teaspoon every hour.

Perhaps the most important role at this time is being with the person suffering. It doesn’t mean doing the “There, there, don’t cry” routine or “Would you like a cup of tea” because both those phrases impart an unconscious message that you can’t cope with their emotions so please will they stop doing it and you can’t cope so you need to escape to make the tea. Having said that, those suffering will often want respite from the presence of others so going into another room to make a drink can be helpful.

If someone is shocked and numb, they do need someone with them to take care of practical issues. If you know someone is likely to be given bad news, it’s best to go with them so you can hear what is being said and hopefully remember the important points and can make sure they are safe afterwards.

Herbs which help
All the soothing nervines will help to greater or lesser extents. Teas made from chamomile, lemon balm, lemon verbena or lime flowers taste good and can help to make the person feel more relaxed and cared for.

Although alcohol such as whisky or brandy are often given to people in shock it’s not really a good idea in large amounts. Alcohol may deaden the emotional pain for a while but the individual will be dehydrated and suffer other damage if it is used for any length of time.

When I was training mental health nurses and drugs teams several years ago, they all told that people who misused either alcohol or other substances nearly always started because of a bereavement they could not cope with. If grief is not acknowledged and supported, so many difficult life events can follow.

Many people find it difficult to sleep at this time. This is normal but can be debilitating. Chamomile relaxes smooth muscle and has a noticeable effect if tea is drunk twenty minutes prior to going to bed. You can also put it into a bath for both adults and children if drinking tea isn’t an option.

If going to sleep or waking in the night is a problem, passionflower tincture is really helpful for stopping the brain’s chatter. It is recommended to keep a dropper bottle by the bed so a dose can be easily taken without getting out of bed. Both passionflower and skullcap can be used in half doses with children, who will also be suffering, especially if those around them are noticeably upset.

Longer term herbal support
Grieving people often find themselves experiencing quite violent emotional outbursts. This can be anger, sorrow, regret or despair. It’s useful to remember that anger is known as a secondary emotion and usually arises from pain or fear. Often, if you address the primary emotion, anger will die away. Anger needs to be acknowledged so it can be properly addressed, ignoring it only makes it worse.

Emotional pain is also a very real event. If someone is suffering from a complicated grief reaction, which is more likely if they have lost a child or a loved one who was murdered, it can be life threatening.

I will often make up a “bereavement tonic” for someone who is grieving based on a mixture of four nervines. Those in the very early stages of grief will receive Vervain (it makes you let go), Lemon balm, St John’s wort (providing they are not only any other mental health pharmaceuticals) and nettles. The dose is 1tsp three times a day. I also give them a small dropper bottle of skullcap tincture to take when they feel a screaming habdab moment coming on or they just can’t cope any longer. A bottle of tonic should last about a month.

As time goes on, if things are still difficult or they approach me further along their timeline, the mix will probably contain Vervain, Milky Oats, Lemon Balm and Motherwort (especially if they’re experiencing hot flushes and minor palpitations which their doctor has already investigated and found nothing untoward) as a blended tincture and they’ll be given nettle seed to eat 1-2 tsps every day for up to three months.

Other herbs which can be really helpful are hawthorn flower essence which will aid forgiveness either of the person taking it or the person who died or who did something unhelpful around the time of the loss. Agrimony flower essence will also assist anyone who is keeping up a cheerful front but crying inside, the “tears of a clown” syndrome.

Lavender tincture has been called “a hug in a bottle” so may be useful to anyone who needs a hug during difficult times.

If you don’t have a flower essence available but do have a tincture, drop doses of the tincture can be given to obtain the same effect. Dose is 4 drops under the tongue four times a day or sipped in a glass of water throughout the day or 4 drops every half hour during a crisis.

This is only a very short commentary of a very complex subject. If you are interested in more information I have a booklet written especially for those who work with grieving people in any capacity as well as leaflets about herbs which can assist in restoring sleep. Please email me via the blog and I will send them to you.

1 comment:

Emma - a simple living journey said...

So much great info, I'm so fascinated with your herbal remedies. As always! One day I will sink my teeth into it properly, I never seem to find the time to do more then the most basic of herbal remedies. They sound wonderful in naturally and gently helping assist the person through their grieving process.